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Journal Articles Global and Planetary Change Year : 2008

Land clearance and hydrological change in the Sahel: SW Niger

Marc J. Leblanc
Guillaume Favreau
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Sylvain Massuel
Sarah O. Tweed


In the West African semiarid belt of the Sahel, for the second half of the XXth century, lasting droughts (1970s–1980s) and one of the World's highest population growths have resulted in major land cover and hydrological changes that can be quantified using aerial photographs. This paper aims to provide one of the longest combined observations of land cover and hydrological changes for semiarid areas using a time series of normalised mosaics of aerial photographs dating back from 1950, field inquiries, and updated groundwater data. The 500 km2 study area in southwest Niger was chosen (i) for its rural environment representative of the rain-fed agriculture belt of the Sahel and (ii) to encompass the main hydrological study sites investigated in this region over the past two decades (Hapex-Sahel and AMMA experiments, 1990–2000s). Results have significant implications for future freshwater availability and food security in the Sahel. Between 1950 and 1992, ∼ 80% of the study area has been cleared, firstly to open new areas for agriculture and secondly for firewood supply (59% of the plateaux, 42% of the valley bottoms, and 87% of the hillslopes). Intermediate aerial photograph surveys (1960, 1975) attest an accelerated loss in the woody savannah that could not be recovered on the short term. A strong, indirect impact of land clearance is observed on the water resources. Land clearance has resulted in a modification of the soil properties and infiltration capacity and has led to an increase in Hortonian runoff collected in numerous gullies and ponds. Between 1950 and 1992, aerial photographs show a ∼ 2.5 fold increase of the drainage density with the development of large drainage systems and new ponds. Groundwater data also indicate a continuous rise in the water table, mostly noticeable since the 1980s with a mean groundwater level rise of ∼ 4 m for the 1963–2005 period (+ 15% in aquifer reserves). The relatively short ∼ 30 year time-lag between the onset of land clearance and the beginning of the water table rise is linked to the process of indirect groundwater recharge and is timed with the connectivity of the drainage network and the formation of new ponds. Finally, the sustained increase in surface runoff and groundwater recharge during the past four decades indicates that the indirect impact of land clearance on the terrestrial water balance has been stronger than that of the long-lasting Sahelian drought. As the rate of land clearance increased for the past century in semiarid Africa, its main hydrological effects may not yet be fully perceptible.

Dates and versions

hal-01239657 , version 1 (08-12-2015)



Marc J. Leblanc, Guillaume Favreau, Sylvain Massuel, Sarah O. Tweed, Maud Loireau, et al.. Land clearance and hydrological change in the Sahel: SW Niger. Global and Planetary Change, 2008, 61 (3–4), pp.135--150. ⟨10.1016/j.gloplacha.2007.08.011⟩. ⟨hal-01239657⟩
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